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September 2004

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  • Emilio Botín knew that launching a frontal assault on the UK banking market was never going to be a bed of roses. But the 70-year-old chairman of Grupo Santander, Spain's largest bank, and his team were knocked for six by the furore that was unleashed in response to their £8 billion-plus bid for Abbey, the sick man of British banking.
  • South African banks are working out how to structure and finance the Black Economic Empowerment (BEE) deals that are altering the ownership structure of the country's financial services industry. Under South Africa's voluntary Financial Sector Charter, direct black ownership in financial institutions should reach 10% by 2010.
  • South Africa has built stable macroeconomic foundations since the overthrow of apartheid but its potential as a regional leader is still hampered by corporate rigidities, untapped talent reflected in high unemployment, an Aids epidemic and a failure to attract inward investment.
  • Citigroup's trading on European government bond platform MTS on August 2 has provoked a lot of hyperbole. Citigroup sold e11 billion of European government bonds on MTS and bought e4 billion back a few minutes later at a lower price, making a profit and causing losses at other primary dealers. According to one financial newspaper, Citigroup has "systematically targeted other market makers' mandatory price quotes", which has "shocked rivals". Consequently, the eurozone government bond market has been "thrown into turmoil" and apparently national debt agencies have been forced into a period of "intense soul searching".
  • Argentina has over half a million creditors, while Iraq has comparatively few. But dealing with $100 billion of Iraq's debt has given everyone from the IMF to the Paris Club a tough problem to resolve. The US government will urge generosity but a happy solution for all interested parties is next to impossible.
  • Lack of volatility and narrow spreads have driven investors to seek out yield in the structured credit market. New products built on transparent, non-proprietary credit derivative indices have fed this demand but participants worry that not all investors have a clear idea of what they are getting into.
  • Banks in Arab countries enjoyed much better results in 2003, especially during the second half. In 2002 earnings fell on the back of weakness in global investment markets, tight margins, and higher provisions. Net profit bounced back in 2003, rising by over 15% for the top 100 Arab banks.
  • Iran's economic liberalization programme has shown impressive results. But the victory of conservative forces in the latest elections threatens further progress. Meanwhile the country's banks are incapable of funding its corporations, which are turning instead to the capital markets.
  • The Shariah-compliant debt market has grown rapidly, with interest from issuers and investors outside as well as inside the Muslim world. The next development is likely to be more corporate issues using Islamic structures.
  • There's an obvious appeal in linking your brand with the Olympic ethos of excellence and achievement, as the likes of John Hancock, Visa and Greece's own Alpha Bank did at last month's Athens Games. Other sponsorships are harder to work out. Standard Bank of South Africa, for example, is sponsoring a dead whale. Misty is, or was, a southern right whale (Eubalaena australis) that came off second best in a collision with a ship and washed up near Cape Town. As Standard Bank says in a grisly press release: ?Decomposition set in and her rotting 70-ton body became a source of controversy. It was decided to implode the carcass but [residents] persuaded the powers to allow them to remove the rotting flesh to preserve the skeleton.
  • Argentina is facing an invidious situation. It has strong motives to resolve the default on its foreign debt but its offer could be strangled at birth. Many creditors seem unwilling to accept it. The proposed bond exchange, the world's largest ever, is just the beginning of the road back to international acceptance.
  • A well-executed privatization programme, carefully directed investment in education, valuable trade agreements and astute management of debt and inflation have underscored the growing health of the Jordanian economy, symbolized by its graduation from IMF programmes.
  • There has been an unseasonal tension on some of Spain's more exclusive beaches over the past month. August is usually a time for the great and the good of industry to leave the stresses of the cities behind them and unwind by the sea. But for the chairmen of some of the biggest companies, the holidays were spoiled by the knowledge that in the autumn they will be fighting for their jobs.
  • Germany breached the EU's budget deficit limit of 3% of GDP over the first six months of this year and will almost certainly break the terms of the European stability pact that underpins the euro for the third year in a row. In fact, the government managed to run a 4% budget deficit over the first half of this year, slightly higher than the 3.9% for the end of 2003, federal statistics office Destatis revealed last month.
  • It's late on a Thursday night and the party cognoscenti are headed for one of Asia's slickest nightspots. From the exterior, f.bar, a bunker-like building with an unpromising squat black façade is guarded by serious-looking security personnel clad head to toe in matching black.
  • Having been heavily overweight on Russia last year, many emerging-market equity investors are now scaling back their positions. Some investors are making a fundamental reassessment of Russian equity risk.
  • The prospect of next month's European Commission decision on EU membership for Romania has concentrated the minds of the country's politicians and bankers. A flurry of reforms have been accompanied by an acceleration of privatization to get the country into shape for a 2007 accession target.
  • The mini bank crisis Russians faced in the summer has underscored the urgent need for bank sector reform and the creation of a system that can respond to the credit needs of businesses and individuals.
  • The EU's decision in December on Turkey's bid for membership will have dramatic effects on the country's economic development. But even if the formal accession process begins, major reforms will still have to be undertaken.
  • Russia's economy is roaring up the growth curve but dependence on oil revenues, insufficient diversification into other activities and a growing gap between the well-off and the poor give cause for concern.
  • Deflation is on the way, summoning up a long and dreary financial winter. But it should be preceded by a burst of autumn sunshine
  • New tools such as credit default swaps and index products have changed the ground rules of hedge fund activity in emerging markets. They are paying off now but will sophisticated pricing and technology be able to cope with the next emerging-market debt crisis?
  • New approaches to instilling high standards have fed into this year's Euromoney corporate governance survey. Initiatives include activist fund managers taking on mandates to advise other investment groups and the incorporation of governance criteria into bond ratings.
  • German savings banks are using credit default swaps to reduce their credit risk concentration for the first time.
  • If your competitors are beating you to the most lucrative deals, it could be they're better at pressing the flesh. Wooing potential clients over drinks or dinner is as much a part of a banker's job as making formal pitches.
  • Nordea has become the first bank anywhere to completely outsource its company equity research. It is unlikely to be the last. The pan-Nordic bank is to cease its own coverage of stocks in the Nordic region and will instead buy research on 200 regional stocks, including buy, sell and hold recommendations, from Standard & Poor's. This follows a similar deal with S&P last year in which Nordea outsourced all its US, European and Asian company equity research coverage to the US group.
  • European and US equity markets have mirrored each other for years but macro trends could force a decoupling over the next two years. ABN Amro strategists see several factors paving the way for this. The first is that productivity growth in the US and Europe has passed an inflection point. The US has experienced two years of strong productivity growth, but the rate is unlikely to be sustainable. European productivity still has room for improvement.
  • You're a populist left-wing politician in South America. Your country's elite doesn't like you, and Wall Street is scathing. Your reputation could do with a bit of help. What do you do? Why, take out an advertisement in the New York press, of course. The trend started in July, when an advert appeared in the New York Times. "Argentina," it blared: "A responsible country, a responsible proposal". A list of the great and the good followed, attesting to Argentina's "sincere and realistic proposal to creditors" (see Argentina's creditors brace for lowball offer). U2's Bono, Mikhail Gorbachev and actors Emma Thompson and Viggo Mortensen were prominent.
  • Wait long enough and anything comes back into fashion. Even flares. Now it's high-yield cash collateralized bonds, or CDOs.
  • When it comes to picking stocks and beating the market, women are better, says DigitalLook.com. In a study of 100,000 portfolios from July 2003 to July 2004, the company found the average woman's portfolio grew 10%, beating the FTSE All-Share by 3% and the average man's portfolio by 4%.